Three days of crispy cold weather and almost clear skies, occasionally, even moments of bright cold sunshine – that is not what one expects of November in Helsinki. Usually it is damp and dark and windy and generally depressing – well, November has only just begun! On Thursday and Friday I was out sitting with the elm and the alder in the morning; today I visited them after noon, and noticed that the weather was getting warmer again. The ice forming on the puddles on the paths in the park yesterday (see image below) was gone today. Not many people out in the middle of the day, despite Halloween. But some with their dogs, still. Some of them show openly their surprise, when they notice a human being behaving in an unusual way, and so do children, while adults walk past as if they would not notice. Probably they avoid being embarrassed on my behalf that way, or perhaps they simply try to ignore noticing unusual details for some other reason. It is a way of being polite, I guess. Like when somebody is being drunk and behaving badly, most people try to look away as if not noticing, so they would not have to intervene.
Yesterday we had an interesting conversation with the visiting curator Irini Papadimitriou at Muu gallery, see info here, with some fascinating comments from people in the audience as well. I have not looked at the video documentation yet. The problem of inviting people to abandon representations of the environment and go out to experience the outdoors themselves, but doing that with the help of representations, is one thing. Another paradox or problem is the use of technology, which seems so immaterial and light but is actually draining lots of resources and creating much problematic waste as well. And there are other problems, too, like the illusion of continuity created by time-lapse imagery, which gives the impression of a durational performance while being produced by a series of short repeated performances and thus being “fake” in that sense.
The Muu exhibition, called Once Again, shows old works from Harakka Island, Year of the Horse (2003) and Year of the Horse – Calendar (2015) – they are available as small files on the RC, here – as well as several works created during the Arsbioarctica residency in Kilpisjärvi in 2014, with documentation on the RC as well, here. I am using the same principles in these visits to the trees, but for some reason I am not treating my tree companions with the same respect as Malla Fell; I am somehow taking them for granted, it seems. And the images are framed in a way that shows only a tiny fraction of the trees. Hm. Something to think about…
One could assume that the ancient Celtic idea of a tree is rather strange, at least if you look at the so-called tree calendar. The vine in September, the Ivy in October and the reed in November are not what first comes to mind when thinking of trees. The real problem with the vine and the ivy is the same as with the holly, they do not grow as high up north as Helsinki. Some singular examples can be found, and since the ivy is a rather common feature in outdoor flower arrangements I expected to find some ivy climbing along a wall or around a tree somewhere, but no. At the Kaisaniemi Botanical garden I found an ivy growing near the entrance, as a low shrub barely succeeding in climbing up the wall, nothing to perform with, really. And I was already a few days late in the calendar. The month of the ivy extends from 30 September to 27 October at least according the version of the calendar that I have followed during this year. So yesterday, on the first November I decided to quit searching and went and bought myself a new house plant, an ivy in a pot. I would have preferred a larger one, but this was as big as they had them at Stockmann, and that would have to do.
The next problem was where to place it, or myself together with it, where could I find some form of neutral background? The wall in my home are covered with bookshelves or furniture; my study at the Collegium did not have enough light; to take the boat to my studio on Harakka seemed cumbersome and if I bought a house plant I should perform with it at home, I thought. The cupboard doors in my bedroom are white, and by moving away some large plants from the window I could get almost enough light for the video camera, which was sitting on a tripod in the middle of the room. The first attempts in the morning where oddly unsharp, probably due to lack of light, or then some mistake, so I tried again in the afternoon. This time I placed the tripod on my bed and moved two strong lamps from the kitchen and the living room to assist the cloudy daylight from the window. I also went through the automatic functions of the camera, and yes, now the image was at least sharp. Because the tripod was on the bed the horizon was not exactly horizontal, however, which would not have mattered if not for the vertical line of the cupboard door, which was clearly leaning. How easy it is to work in harsh circumstances outdoors, where you accept what is and that’s it. Indoors, when everything has to be arranged the whole thing is immediately much more challenging. But perhaps some small miracles could be done while editing. Usually I am not using any after effects and my main tool is a dissolve. But to brighten the image a little and add some contrast I could try. It helped a little, but not that much, as you can see below.
I also remembered straightening the horizon in one clip once, but could not remember how to do it any longer. I searched through all kinds of weird effects until I resorted to google, and immediately found a detailed reply to somebody’s desperate plea, and managed to sort it out with that advice. The difference is clear. Thus, not only did I change the rules by missing the proper time of the month, October, using a houseplant and performing indoors, I even used editing tools to correct the image, well, well. One can only wonder where I will end if I continue down this road…
The first version is murky and rather unpleasant to watch, although the composition and the fold of the scarf looks much nicer than in the second image, which is fairly sharp and “normal”. Both versions are available on the Research Catalogue, as small files, here. The interesting thing in the second version is the constant movement of the plant, due to my shivering. I remember it was painful to balance the pot, I had some strange cramp in my neck, but I could not imagine that I would be shaking that much. It looks funny, because it is as if the ivy would be shivering, trying to tell me to rest it on a more stable surface. After this ordeal it found safe place on top of a chest of drawers with some light, too.
Three mornings, after the rain, before the rain and – in rain. On Thursday morning the microphone was out-of-order, the battery was finished; luckily there was no wind, so I could record without it. I was surprised to see how the elm tree on the hill had lost a large part of its leaves, lying beneath it, brown and wrinkled, while other trees in the park were beautifully yellow or red. Many are still green, like the alder; the leaves will fall green, I suppose. On Friday the weather was almost clear, more chilly with a cold wind; water in pools on all the paths. And today, on Saturday the sky looked grey again. While I was walking down to the alder the drizzle started, and by the time I sat with the elm the rain was pouring down. On the way back I realised I had an umbrella with me, after all. My plan had been to continue to Harakka Island and revisit the cliff where I recorded Year of the Monkey in 2004-2005, and perhaps record the view on video, to use as the basis for a small essay. The rain made me change my mind. The ferry-boat will continue until 22 October, and I would like to record the cliff before that, so as to be on the safe side regarding possible storms. I hate the idea of having to row in rough sea. Anyway, there is still time. The essay is for the upcoming Research Day, on 8 November, organised by the project How to do Things with Performance. The call can be found here, and soon also the program. Before that there will be an other research day, more informal, on 27 October, called “With Plants”. There is no website, but the call is simple:
A seminar on working with plants 27 October 2017 10 am to 6 pm.
Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies, Fabianinkatu 24 A floor 1, room 136.
This multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary event is aimed at artists, researchers and scholars who are working with plants in various ways. You are cordially invited to share your experiences. Please send the title of your presentation, an abstract and a short bio no later than 15 October to annette.arlander(at)uniarts.fi.
The month of the vine in the Celtic tree calendar extends from September 2 to September 29, at least according the version of the calendar that I have decided to follow for my attempt at creating a brief video with the tree of each moth, in Helsinki. The place is a crucial restriction, since not all of the trees or plants in the calendar grow in Helsinki. Besides the holly, which I found in a botanical garden, the vine and the ivy are posing problems. It is possible to grow grape vines in southern Finland, and I looked up a potential site in Helsinki, the Annala Garden. Before I learned about the possibility of finding grape vines in Helsinki I had thought of the popular creeper or vine called “villiviini” (or wild vine) in Finnish. In the backyard of the house where I live there is a huge vine or actually a whole group of vines climbing up the wall of the neighbouring house, and I have considered the possibility of trying to somehow record them for quite a while. Today when returning from my regular visit to the trees (the alder and the elm) in Kaivopuisto Park I decided to take a look. After all, I had my black clothes on and my camera and tripod with me, and I had an hour before I would have to leave for the airport, so why not? When I saw that the vine had already turned red I realized this was the moment to do it; two weeks later when I would be back from my trip it might be too late.
My first attempt was unsuccessful, I did not even manage to enter the image. The leaves of the vine are concentrated rather high up on the wall, and the stems closer to the ground are bare. A further complication is the narrow space between the two walls. After some experimenting I found an angle for the camera, where I would be visible in the lower right hand corner, if I stood on top of the bicycle supports. By rotating the camera for a vertical image, I could get the whole wall with the vine, or most of it, into the image frame. I knew from before that trying to create vertical video resulted in numerous problems, although it was so easy with still photos, but it was not impossible. You simply had to use a monitor or flat screen instead of a projector, and rotate the screen for the display. So I decided to forget about Annala garden and spend some time clinging to the wall. The final video is brief, 5 min and 15 seconds, (see Vine in September), but that is sufficient for the tree calendar.
Only two visits to the trees in Helsinki this week, on Tuesday and Wednesday morning. My plan was to include Thursday, too, but I chose to go to CARPA 5 – colloquium on artistic research in performings arts, where I have a small installation running nonstop for the duration of the event. One reason was the rainy weather, I have to admit. And I had to make preparations for a trip to Odense in Denmark, where I am participating in an event organised by Nordic Performance Art, facilitating a participatory performance with swinging and also speaking at the seminar. So my thoughts were everywhere else except wih the trees. On Tuesday I was preparing for a busy day, but the weather was calm. On Wednesday the wind was strong, but the direction was such that the camera on the tripod was not under direct attack. The only incident I remember was an alder leaf falling gently down on my head while sitting on the stub, a surprise and a strange feeling, a sign of autumn.
It seems like everything is happening at the same time this weekend. Besides Carpa 5 there is the Art in the Environment Nordic symposium 2017 in Vartiosaari. I managed to see the end of one performance by Anna Rubio at HIAP in Suomenlinna, which is part of the symposium, that is all. Then there is the event I am performing at in Odense, organised by Nordic Performance Art (a slightly misleading name, I guess). Moreover, one of my videos is shown as part of a screening curated by Leena Kela at an event called Meetings – Video and performance art festival in Mid- and western Jutland in Denmark on the same day. And then there is probably many other interesting things going on, but as one cannot be everywhere at once, one has to trust that anywhere is the right place for that moment…
For once it was easy to find the tree of the month for my tree calendar – based on the ancient celtic tree calendar – namely the hazel, whose month (according to one version of the calendar) is from 5 August to 1 September. I found a nice group of hazels growing next to the path following the shore near Herttoniemi Manor from a map on the internet that listed fruit trees and bushes with berries in Helsinki. These hazels did not have any nuts, though, or hardly any traces of them, really. But they looked thriving and there was no doubt they were representatives of the common hazel, Corylus Avellana. I walked among them and tried to find a suitable framing for the image, including some water but not the houses. At first I sat on a rock next to one of the hazels near the path, and placed my camera in the middle of the bushes. Then I tried to find animate with more space and placed the camera on the lawn, standing in or amongst the branches holding on to one of the thicker stems. In Finnish there is a satin “kolmas kerta toden sanoo”, meaning something like “the third time is the real one”. And that proved correct this time. For the third image I found a bush with several stems bowed in a way that I could venture to sit on them, actually sitting in the small tree, and that version seemed like the nicest one, despite the darkening of the sky towards the end. Only when I left the park and walked back towards the metro station, returning to the city centre, did the rain start.
The material is now edited into three videos, Hazel in August 1 (10 min. 40 sec.), Hazel in August 2 (10 min. 10 sec.) and Hazel in August 3 (9 min. 35 sec.) and I still think the third version is the “real” one.
After spending a few days in Kassel, Germany, experiencing Documenta 14, it was a pleasure to return to the trees in Helsinki for three mornings in a row. Two of them sunny and bright and the third, this morning, a grey day with drizzle. Not that visiting Documenta would not have been a pleasure, but it was exhausting, too, especially on Saturday, when everybody seemed to have decided to go there and the queues were long. The amount of people everywhere felt unfamiliar to somebody living in Finland, where we tend to look for crowds to get close to each other for a moment, for festivals and the like, and then quickly retreat to a safe distance afterwards, with plenty of emptiness around, if possible. Not many people passed by in the park these mornings; a group of small children from the nearby Kindergarten.
The plant growing from the hollow stub of the alder has gained in vigour and is now reaching far beyond its cosy base (see image above, and below).
But what about Documenta and plants? There were Beuys’ Oaks, of course, and in the current exhibition in Kassel, in Documenta Halle, Aboubakar Fofana from Mali had assembled plenty of living indigo plants as part of his work Fundi (Uprising). There might have been others, I could not see everything, in the overabundance of art works, but it seemed otherwise plants were present mainly as materials, or as representations.
There were three different plants that had been used to produce traditional indigo dye, Indigofera arrecta, Polygonum Tinctorium or Japanese indigo and Isatis Tinctoria or woad, which all contain indigotin and where a source of wealth and misery in colonial times, before synthetic methods for dyeing were developed. I remember reading a beautifully written ethnographic study about indigo, I suppose it was Indigo: the Indelible Colour That Ruled the World by Catherine McKinley, but I am no longer sure. And as a child I read a strange novel from the thirties or forties, called Aniliini in Finnish, which described the background to the chemical inventions related to textile colours, which has stayed in my mind more as vague atmosphere than any story as such. These thoughts never occurred to me while strolling in Kassel, I did not even think the art work in question was so special. But now, in retrospect, I am fascinated by the world it opens up. And similarly, various worlds could be entered via each and ever art work, uh! It is just too much…
Finding a holly (Ilex aquifolium) in Helsinki is no easy matter, but there are some hollies here, although they have trouble surviving the winter and need a protected spot to grow in. Hybrids between the usual holly, which grows as far up north as Denmark, and another relative (Ilex rugosa) have been created to survive here (Ilex x meserveae), although their leaves are not as sharp, they say. The holly is the tree (or shrub) for the 9nth lunar month in the Celtic Tree Calendar from July 8 to August 4, and one of the most difficult ones from a Finnish perspective. My original idea was to find trees for the tree calendar on the shores of Helsinki, but some compromises are necessary. At the end of the Töölönlahti bay there are some thriving hollies, but they are completely mixed with other shrubs and growing in a narrow area between the footpath and the main road, thus difficult to perform with. The holly that I decided to begin with I found in the Kajsaniemi Botanical Garden, growing in a corner next to some Magnolias. At first I thought it completely impossible to do anything with the hollies there, since they were cramped in a corner, against a wall and he area was so limited, but then that proved an asset. Instead of sitting on the ground next to them, as I planned at first, I framed the image so that the signs describing their names remade out of sight below the frame and stepped “inside” the shrub, standing amongst the branches. I made three attempts, and in the last one I am actually standing next to the wall, behind the holly, as it were. I tried to stand immobile for approximately ten minutes each time, and it was relatively easy, except in the first image when some of the sharp leaves tried to get into my eyes so I had to keep them closed for most of the time. That image is probably the nicest, though, since I am almost completely covered by the leaves. The last image is probably the most beautiful in a conventional sense, because of the sunlight playing on the wall. Anyway, I think I am happy with these first attempts, although they have very little in common with the first images of the calendar, when I tried to find trees by the sea shore. The three sessions resulted in three videos, Holly in July 1, Holly in July 2 (9 min 22 sec.) and Holly in July 3 (10 min 20 sec.). The third one is fascinating, because after a few minutes the camera decided to focus on the leaves in the foreground rather than the human being in the background, probably waiting in vain for the human to continue to move. And when the leaves move in the wind, they then get the attention they deserve.
Now that the grass around the elm tree is cut the stubs of the two trunks that accompany the three growing ones are more visible. One of them is completely hollow, and was perhaps cut down because it was rotting from the inside, while the other is cut rather high and looks like it was a quite healthy when cut off. Anyway, they all grow from the same root, so when I say I am sitting in the elm tree I am actually not describing the situation clearly. I am sitting under the elm trees or at the foot of the elm trees or, well? – Most of the time these (holi)days I am actually sitting in the former telegraph on Harakka Island, as a gallery guard of sorts.
Spending time as a gallery guard is a nice form of holiday activity, especially when the gallery or exhibition space is a small wooden house built at the end of the 19th century to serve as a telegraph for the Russian military, and situated on an island with nature preservation areas. And of course it helps if the exhibition you are taking care of is your own. Well, Harakka Island is very close to the centre of Helsinki and I have my studio there in the former Chemical Research Laboratory of the Armed Forces, together with quite a few other artists, so this is actually a working place for me. In summertime, however, the place feels almost like a summer cottage. Perhaps moving down the slope from the big main building to the little wooden house creates the feeling of cottage life. So here I sit and drink tea and chat with the occasional visitors, who are not very many I must confess.
The exhibition is called Cami de Cavalls and shows two works recorded on the horse path with that name on Menorca in July 2015, as well as a small work recorded in Stockholm in 2016, Summer at Söder. For more information about the exhibition, please look at Cami de Cavalls. And because the exhibition is open on from noon to 5 pm, I have plenty of time to visit the trees in the Kaivopuisto Park in the mornings.
On thursday 20 July 2017 it is high tide (190 m) at 10.30 am in Rekdal, a village on the northern coast of Vestvågoy on Lofoten. I am planning to record the view on the shore together with a small birch every hour during this day, starting with high tide at 10.30 am (190 cm) and continuing through low tide at 4.50 pm (48 cm) to the next high tide at 11.10 pm. (198 m), hoping for shifting weather, that is, some bursts of sun shine amidst the grey clouds, and it looks hopeful. There have been sunny moments this morning already. Changes in light conditions make it worthwhile; the shifts of the tide are not that visible since the sea is not very shallow in the spot I have chosen. I am eager to get out, but there is one more hour to go before the first image. A close-up of the birch to begin with:
10 am (or a few minutes before) – grey, grey, grey. Wind from the north, no sun any longer, half an hour before high tide, the top of the rock near the shore is still visible above water. No traffic on the road, but far away the sound of a motor boat heading out; I can see it as a small dot. Approximately three minutes with the tree is enough, I assume. There is already a path across the meadow formed by my repeated comings and goings between the camera and the tree. For a moment I think I should try to walk outside the frame to keep the grass intact in the image, but decide to let it be. Before I go to stand with the birch I take a few still images of it. And then, afterwards, I only turn the camera and the microphone off and leave them standing on the tripod out there on the shore. Hopefully they will not attract the interest of seagulls or other birds.
11 am, the same view, the same sea, the same sky, the same tree and the same grass. It is past high tide but I cannot see the difference. Perhaps the mountains on the horizon are a little bluer, but I could be imagining. The camera will register the nuances, though. Some seagulls pass by, and a caravan drives past behind me on the road, otherwise nothing is happening during my moment with the birch. Even the wind seems to have calmed somewhat. A long day ahead, monotonous, but pleasant as long as it does not rain…
Noon, the sun is shimmering through the clouds in the south, enough to create a shadow in the grass when I walk to the shore, enough to brighten the green on the grass and to strengthen the blue shade of the grey sea. The tide should be going out now, but I cannot see it in the bay with the tiny birch; on the other side of the cliffs the beach is more shallow and the seaweeds are now showing up above the water. I wish for more sun, for the warmth it gives and for the contours it creates in the landscape. The wind from the north is not strong but chilly; it is hard to imagine that there is nothing but the arctic sea in that direction; next stop Svalbard.
1 pm, grey again. The pale sun hides behind the clouds that seem to have grown thicker again. The tide is slowly going out. A small white boat is coming across the bay, stopping behind the cliffs to the left, perhaps the neighbours were out on a tour. I am no longer expecting surprises, this seems to be a grey day throughout, only minute changes in the quality of light. No directions, no shadows, no stripes of sun moving across the mountains. Subtle shifts rather than dramatic effects. And I did choose a very generic piece of shore with no high cliffs or steep slopes in view, nor any of the features that make the landscape in this area so exciting. And now I cannot change my mind any longer.
2 pm, the weather as before, the wind a soft breeze now, the tide going gout, slowly. The sun shines through the clouds, not enough to give shadow, but enough to brighten the colours. The meadow is very still, so quiet that I could hear somebody closing a car door on the road behind me. I would like to make some close-ups of the rocks here, they have strange curved shapes, formed by the sea. But I have left my camera standing on the tripod in order to get the images as alike as possible. With these subtle changes it is even more important that the framing stays constant. Here in the north it would have been fascinating, and easy, to record a full day and night, because the site is so close to the house, and there is light all night, too. For some reason I was tied to the idea of the tide and of making a companion piece to The Tide in Kan Tiang, which was only one day, and not even all the way to sunset actually. The Tide in Rekdal does not sound as good as a name, but this little valley and village is called Rekdal, so I should stick to that. Because the tide is hardly distinguishable in the images, I could of course rename the work to Grey Day in Rekdal, for instance.
3 pm, a pale sun shimmering from behind the clouds, warming my neck as I stand with the birch on the shore. The cliffs in the bay are lit by the sun for a moment, but they are outside the frame of the image. The tide is rather low now, revealing the pebbles and the seaweed on the shore, but the camera cannot see them, because of the high grass. The day is moving fast now, it is already afternoon, but the evening will be long due to the light. At some point the sun will hide behind the mountain but will hopefully be visible again when it slides closer to the horizon in the north. These are the last days of the midnight sun here, they say.
4 pm, the wind is increasing again, the pale sun has moved towards west as expected, the tide is even lower now. For the camera the shore looks the same. Funny that I chose a spot where the tide is the least visible. Although I can see the shoreline change where I stand by the birch, the camera cannot. Absurd to speak of the tide in Rekdal, when no tide whatsoever can be distinguished in the image. A slice of blue sky, however, has opened amidst the clouds, like a brushstroke of colour across the sky. And some white foam appears in the bay, where some underwater rocks are closer to the surface at low tide and cause the waves to break there. Basically this image I am repeating is so unspectacular that I wonder how I can relate to it or write to it, with it, for it… Or then I will not. There is no need for all recordings to become works.
5 pm, the tide is turning; there is more blue in the sky and the sea is thus more blue as well. Seagulls are screaming, the waves have foam when they reach the shore. In the image the sky looks divided in two parts, a grey part and a blue part. In the unframed world around me, there are all kinds of clouds moving around. The mountains on the other side of the bay are decorated by their shadows. The zipper of my crimson sweater is not working well, not yet broken, but problematic. So far I have chosen to struggle with it until I could close it before entering the image. In the worst-case scenario, I might have to leave it open or close it around me by my left hand. So there might be some action after all…
6 pm, partly cloudy, sun on the mountains on the other side of the bay. Now the wind is cold, the tide is coming in, but the water is still low. The rocks covered in seaweed look like lumps of old wet rags abandoned on the beach. Repeating the same image every hour gives very small shifts between the images, and also very little time to do something else between the sessions. Walking down to the shore and back up into the house takes some time, as does writing these quick notes after each image. When I look out the window I see a dozen or more of images worthy of repeating. But it was my choice to find a small tree alone on the shore, as a reminder or repetition of the one on the beach in Kan Tiang. Todays images have nearly nothing in common with that work, but the idea of creating a companion piece got me going. If I had more time I would probably transform this to something else, find another place and try to recognise what is the special thing to record in this landscape…
7 pm, cold wind, evening approaching. It is full day light at this hour up in the north, but the feeling of evening is here nevertheless. The mountains on the other side of the bay look bright and seem very near, but the meadow on the shore is in the shadow of the mountain behind me. I have managed to edit some other video works between my visits to the shore. Moving between the images on the screen in front of me and the images I can see through the window, both fascinating in their own way, makes for a strange duality. The work I am editing is called Cami de Cavalls and recorded two years ago on Menorca, while walking on a dusty path in the heat of the Mediterranean Summer, a world as distant from this one as it can be. I wonder where I will be editing this cold cool minimalist view – the image I am creating is rather different from the rest of the surroundings, which are spectacular and aw-inspiring.
8 pm, cold and windy. This time I had to do the session twice because the memory card was full and the first session was thus too short. I also realized the battery might be finished soon, so for the last two sessions I had better carry a battery with me. I would prefer not to change the battery now, however, because removing the camera from the tripod involves of risk of disturbing the image. It would very likely mean a slight shift in the framing, and that would be silly now, at the end of the sequence. Wondering whether the sun will come out on the other side of the mountain before I am finished; it might do so only around midnight, and I have decided to finish at ten. If the tide would be visible I could go on until high tide at 11 pm as planned, but as it is, that is rather pointless. Some sunlight to finish this video would not hurt, however.
9 pm, windy as before. The sun will probably appear from behind the mountain later tonight, but so far the meadow is in shadow and it is getting rather cold. Luckily we are having a picnic by the boathouse with the remaining artists and one of the neighbours, a barbecue of whale meat (!), controversial but delicious. I was sitting and chatting away with a glass of red wine when I realised that it was time to take the next to last image and hurried to the camera. I cleared away the material from yesterday from the memory card and hoped that the battery would last. And it did.
10 pm, the last image. The tide is fairly high now, covering most of the rocks and coming further in still. It is cold despite the light and I decide not to make an extra image at 11 pm hoping for the sun. At the moment of writing this it is eleven o’clock, and there are blue clouds all over the sky in the northwest and the north, so no direct view of the sun. Good that I did not wait; enough for now. I am eager to see what the images actually look like when taken together. Here is the last one:
While the surroundings looked like this: